As Donald Trump took power, just about everyone said that he planned to pull in American horns and withdraw the US from the world.Well, not quite.
With daring moves in Asia and the Middle East—or they just impulsive and risky?— along with a hardline stand on the leftist government in South America, Trump is showing himself to be an old school interventionist.
Old school might mean Cold War confrontational style.
Trump decided out of the blue to dispatch a contingent of US Marines to Syria to help in the takeover of Raqqa, the city which is the main base of the Islamic State in the country. This act was very much unlike anything done by his predecessor, Barack Obama. Obama was reluctant to get involved militarily in Syria, to the point where he let the Syrian army get away with using poison gas on a civilian neighborhood without punishment.
With the US absent, Russia stepped in on the side of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, left Washington both outside the power game dominated by Moscow and Assad-ally Iran, but also without influence in peace talks sponsored by Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
During the presidential election campaign, Trump had proposed establishment of a refugee safe-zone in Syria. Critics pooh-poohed the idea on the grounds that such a safe haven would require air power to protect and Russia would shoot US planes out of the air.
In the face of all that, Trump went further. He sent US troops to fight. They also require air cover for their safety, yet neither Russia nor Iran has tried to intercept American fighter jets over Syria. Meanwhile, Assad called the Marines “invaders,” though, confusingly, he also said cooperation with Trump to defeat the Islamic State would be a good thing.
So is this a gesture destined to go wrong, like Ronald Reagan’s dispatch of Marines to Lebanon in 1983, during which a suicide truck bombing killed 241 soldiers? Or does this suddenly give Trump skin in the game to influence a political outcome in Syria? Or is it merely part of his promise to crush the Islamic State, after which he will leave Syria to the Russians and Iranians?
No matter. He has already distanced himself from Obama’s hands-off policy and, militarily, shown himself to be more overtly interventionist than his predecessor.
Same with North Korea. After the North Koreans tested a ballistic missile, Trump authorized deployment of anti-missile batteries to South Korea. This is a departure not only from Obama but also former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both of whom relied on economic sanctions to (ineffectively) rein in the Kim dynasty in the North.
Both China and Russia objected to the anti-missile maneuver. Trump ignored them.
Meanwhile, Trump took a hard line on the floundering socialist regime in Venezuela. He put sanctions on the country’s vice-president, alleging his involvement in drug trafficking. Venezuela complained a little bit, but didn’t make much noise about it. Nor has anyone else.
In Washington, there’s always the search for the Foreign Policy Doctrine ™ in a new administration. It took a while for the ever reticent Obama Administration to produce one, which in shorthand, his officials called “Don’t do stupid sh!t.” That meant refrain from embarking on any major military moves —though Obama was addicted to secret drone warfare in Middle Eastern countries.
Whether Trump’s more out-front posture means dangerous confrontation in potential hotspots remains to be seen. Perhaps a significant test will come in Ukraine, where Obama departed from his customary caution to place economic sanctions on Russia and send some token troops to Eastern Europe after Russia backed Ukraine pro-Moscow rebellions and sent in some of its own troops.
Trump will soon be meeting with Germany’s Angela Merkel in Washington. Discussions about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are on the schedule. Given the focus on Trump’s alleged friendly ties to Russia, it will be a mark of his foreign direction on what he says and eventually does about Ukraine. Will he keep the pressure on? Add to it? If Syria and the Korean Peninsula are any guide, he might be tougher than one might expect, given his past praise of Vladimir Putin.
In any event, Trump’s tendency so far is to talk loudly and wield a significant if not huge stick.
The Guardian on the complexities of US armed intervention in Syria.
Washington Post parses China’s response to US anti-missile systems in South Korea.